Origins of wine
It is widely believed that winemaking began in the Neolithic Period (8500-4000 BC). The first evidence of pottery, an important precondition to the vinification and storage of wine, is dated around 6000 BC. The wild grape, or Vitis vinifera, is native to coastal areas of Asia minor, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the southern coast of the Caspian Sea and much of the Mediterranean, including Greece. The earliest evidence of the existence of wine is located at an archaeological site east of Mesopotamia. In the mid-1990s, Mary Voigt, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, analyzed residue from clay jars in a dwelling from the Hajji Firuz site in the Zagros mountains of what is now northern Iran. In this residue she found traces of salts from tartaric acid and resin from the Terebinth tree. Tartaric acid in significant quantities exists in natural form mainly in grapes. Tree resin is long known to have been used as a preservative and/or sealant for wine vessels. Charcoal on the site had previously been carbon-dated to 5000-5400 BC. Although this is not definitive proof as to the location of proto-viniculture, the concentration of archaeological evidence, including written references, inclines many scholars to favor the idea that winemaking started in Caucasia, then spread to Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece and, from Greece, westward.
There will never be sufficient information to establish with surety the origins of winemaking. With a dearth of absolute empirical data to settle the issue, the subject has become a trap for writers of various nationalities seeking to promote their commercial interests or express their national pride. Some—though not many—Greeks have fallen victim to this temptation at the expense, it should be said, of the promotion of aspects of Greece's contribution to world viniculture that are 1) far more significant and 2) part of a legacy of resources that will be advantageous in Greece's attempt to forge a new reputation in the increasingly competitive international market. Any discussion of Greece's historical role in winemaking should focus on these other aspects.
In attempting to document the history of wine in Greece, the historian. like the archaeologist, must try to piece together fragments. While cultural and aesthetic references from ancient to modern times abound, there are large gaps in our knowledge. Between unaccounted epochs and a lack of continuity in the technical and botanical nomenclature, much remains a mystery. Because the Greek concept through the ages encompasses so many politically distinct peoples in so many different regions at so many different times, there is also the problem of maintaining a coherent time line in the face of shifting political geography. In concluding each chapter of his 1990 survey of the Greek wine industry The Wines of Greece with a section entitled 'Classical Reflections', author Miles Lambert-Gocs dealt elegantly with this problem. Since each wine region is the subject of its own chapter, historical references are tied to textual references, be they geographical, ambelographical, aesthetic, cultural or political. Historical references also appear throughout the text, providing insight, context and bases for comparison between past and present themes and speculation surrounding the origins of current traditions.
The ongoing genetic analysis of her many cultivars will likely contribute greatly to the understanding of Greece's historical role in the evolution of Western viticulture. The ability to identify ties, including parentage, between Greek and other cultivars will enable historians to fill in some gaps in the record concerning the flow of trade between Greek and other cultures. These threads, both continuous and detached, which have woven their way in and out again through the country's winemaking history, create a legitimate and exciting fabric in which to clothe the corpus of Greece's wine industry today. The gaps between the islands of knowledge provided by the written record can be filled in with oceans of speculation, or they can be connected, like dots, with imperfect–but accurate–assumptions based on the migratory trails that surviving cultivar lines reveal in their genetic structure. In sophisticated markets with inquisitive buyers in which the Cultivar is king, this story, which is only now unfolding, is more fascinating, germane and immediate than discussions concerning unsustained past achievements of dubious public relations value to Greece's new wine industry. The work of those, in Greece and abroad, who are painstakingly applying the pieces of this genetic puzzle are performing a service of great benefit to Greece, for they will, at times, bring attention to the extraordinary wealth of resources still present in Greece's collective vineyard. That attention can only contribute to curiosity about the expression of that wealth in a modern vinicultural context.
The arrival of winemaking in ancient Greece is undocumented. Many believe it was brought to Crete by Phoenician traders. It is also likely that it arrived from the north as well, via the land route from Asia Minor. The earliest evidence of winemaking in Greece is a stone foot press at Vathipetro, a Minoan villa on Crete, dated to 1600 BC. The sophistication of the site suggests that Minoan production of wine had been underway for some time. Decoded Linear B tablets from the Minoan site at Knossos in Crete revealed an advanced economy fueled by trade with Eastern cultures, including Egypt. Archaeological finds on the Greek mainland indicate a close connection with the Mycenaean culture. By the sudden end of the Minoan civilization shortly after 1500 BC, winemaking was probably common throughout mainland Greece and the Aegean.
The demise of the Mycenean culture around 1100 BC is believed to have resulted in a brief period of cultural and economic depression on the mainland. The gradual recovery of technical arts and the emergence of ironworking, there and on Crete, characterize a period from around 1050 BC to around 900 BC (Protogeometric or Sub-Mycenean) in which peoples from mainland areas and the Aegean islands also began to colonize parts of Asia Minor and the northern Aegean coast. Trade routes were reestablished, and during the period from 900-700 BC Greece underwent major cultural, political and economic transformations. During this time, urbanization commenced and written languagereemerged with the adoption of a Semitic alphabet. It was during this period also that the Homeric poems are thought to have been recorded. More significantly, it marked the beginning of the formal practice of deity worship. The first references to Dionysos appear in Homer, although they do not indicate the existence of cult-worship per se before this time. Some scholars believe that Greek cultism in general had origins in colonized regions of Asia Minor and were imported to Greece during this period of expansion. The first reference to Dionysos isnow widely believed to be part of a Linear B inscription found during excavations at the Mycenaean site at Pylos in which appears a deity name approximating 'Diwonysos'. Whether this deity was associated with wine cannot be proven, but there is little doubt that wine, which already had become an integral element of Greek culture, had developed a religious status by the end of this period. This legacy outlived the polytheism of Greece and Rome, surviving today even in the staid rituals of Christianity.
The period from 750-550 BC saw the establishment of Greek city states. The needs of a growing Greek population were met by further expansion throughout the Mediterranean coast and along the Black Sea. These colonies were able provide the Greeks with a wide variety of staple goods including meat grain, fish, wool and timber in exchange for olive oil, wine and manufactured commodities. Some of these colonized areas were ideal for the cultivation of the vine. Greek colonists from Phocaia in Asia Minor had themselves founded a colony called Massalia, later Marseilles, on the southern coast of what is now France. This event has become a subtext in Greek cookbooks for thirty years, in which claims are made that the Greeks introduced Bouillabaisse to France. This is unfortunate because these relatively meaningless assertions detract from the likely role the Greeks had in initiating an advanced level of viniculture in the south of France.
By the time of the rise to power of Philip of Makedonia in 359 BC, Greek colonies existed not only in what is now France, but also on the Iberian peninsula, southern Italy, north Africa, Asia Minor and what is now Southern Russia and Georgia. Many of these areas still retain vestiges of Greek influence. Krasnodar Krai, on the Black sea, is still an important Russian wine region. This tradition began with the founding of the Greek settlement Phanagoria in the fifth century BC. The influence of Greek colonization is still felt in the wine industries of Georgia and the Crimea, to which, in ancient times, the Greeks brought all their resources to bear. According to Dr. Kalliope Angelakis-Roubelakis, who co-heads the Greek Vitis Database project at the University of Crete, among European cultivars, the Iberian, as a whole, display the strongest likelihood of being Greek offspring. Whether this is a result of ancient or later migrations has yet to be determined.
Echoes of Greek culture from the period of the colonization of southern Italy continue to this day. The influence and continued existence of Greek dialects in Italy to modern times, Grecanico in Apulia and Calabria, and the Greek components of Salentino dialect, are reminders of the enduring nature of the ancient Greek linguistic influence. Even the name "Italy" is thought to originate in the Greek language. Undoubtedly Greek cultivars entered Italy at many different times, but perhaps one or more of Italy's Greek varieties (Aglianiko, Greca di Velletri, Grecale, Grecanico Dorato, Grecau Niuru, Grechetto Bianco, Grechetto Nero di Todi, Grechettoe Rosso, Greco Bianco, Greco Bianco di Novara, Greco Bianco di Tuffo, Greco Nero and Greco Nero di Cosenza) hark back to this period.
Of ancient Greek wines much has been written, but little is known. The wine vernacular of the Greeks was intimately linked to a cosmology quite foreign to modern sensibilities, and yet, as Lambert-Gocs writes,
The ancient notions concerning wine and its characteristics are more germane to us than we might imagine, for they were taken by Greek colonists to the Western Mediterranean and thereby entered all subsequent vernaculars... Were it not for that continuity of our orientational glances back at ancient Greece, the language of wine today might bear less resemblance to its actual content, which conceptually has remained virtually homogenous throughout Western civilization, and is not at all different in its fundamentals from what it was in the time of Athenaeus, Plutarch, Hippocrates or Theophrastus. [p.271]
Without an empirical basis for making reliable comparisons between ancient Greek and modern Western wines, descriptions from ancient texts—because of a commonality in both terminology and sensibility—at least provide a clearer concept than we might have of, say, ancient Greek music. Modern Greek grape varieties such as Limnio, Athiri, Aïdani, Muscat, etc., believed to be surviving examples of the ancient oenological palette, may offer some clues to their flavor, yet the local wines of regions where traditions have survived—no matter their varietal complexion—would seem more logical in providing signposts to the distant past. It is known that, at various times, the wines of Hios, Thassos and Lesvos were highly regarded and that the wines of Samos were not. Sweet wines were as highly prized in ancient as in modern Greece, perhaps, in part for their staying power, although aesthetics would more likely have accounted for their popularity. Much has been made of the tendency of the Greeks to mix wine with water, including sea water, and to add other ingredients, such as honey and spices. While practices such as these would elicit horror today, they are indicative of a broadminded, creative and culturally integrated wine tradition as well as a highly-developed Epicurean consciousness that is probably beyond the realm of comprehension of the modern mind. Perhaps if one can accept and enjoy Sangria or vermouth over ice, the notion of even more complex and elemental dilutions of wine can be appreciated, especially in an era before distillation and the more recent development in Europe of cocktails and flavored aperitifs. In a way, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. Wine traveled wherever ships sailed. This, the first golden age of wine, entirely an age of Greek wine, came to a close with the disintegration of Magna Graecia during the Peloponesian Wars. By the time Athens fell to the Romans in 86 BC, however, the groundwork for advanced viticulture had been laid throughout a vast expanse of the Western World.
The ancient Greeks can be credited with much: the elevation of wine to a deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon; an apparent technical mastery of wine production; and the development of a sophisticated and archetypal level of commerce, all of which have had a profound effect on Western notions of wine and culture. To get at the truth of this role, one must ask what could be expected to exist now in the absence of an ancient Greek antecedent to the development of our collective wine consciousness? It is not hard to imagine that wine itself is sufficiently powerful a force to drive its expansion to all corners of an appreciative world. Yet, without the engine that drove increasing expertise of its manufacture, a religious reverence for its properties and mysteries, commercial innovations such as appellations of origin and even the export of grape cultivars, the outcome could hardly have been what we know and cherish today. Perhaps there would be no Bordeaux as such or Chianti would be known for white wine, perhaps Russia would have dominated world markets during the Middle Ages. The fate of wine in Western civilization was largely in the hands of the ancient Greeks. That it fares so well today is in great part the result of their spirited and industrious commitment to the vine.
By the thirteenth century, Greece had become a target of territorial expansion from the west by Frankish warlords and, ultimately, by Venice. In the following century, the Ottomans began cutting away at Greece from the east. These two forces had profound—and sometimes opposite—effects on winemaking in Greece during their respective periods of control over different regions.
Venetian Map showing Central Greece
and the Peloponessos
The Venetian influence, (felt briefly in the Peloponessos, but mainly in the Ionian islands, Crete and parts of the Aegean islands) was manifested in the promotion of export production. Although the Venetians developed an extensive program of currant and olive production to the detriment of wine grape production in the Ionian islands, the lasting linguistic effect of their rule on cultivar names and wine genres there suggests they at least valued the existence of local winemaking. Author Clifford Wright, in his exhaustive history of Mediterranean cuisine, A Mediterranean Feast, mentions a fifteenth-century Italian reference to a fish stew boiled in Vino Greco. More significantly, the Venetians cultivated extensive markets as far north as England for Malvasia (Malmsey), a highly-prized sweet wine that was a predecessor to the fortified wines of the Iberian peninsula. Malvasia was produced originally on Crete, but eventually became associated with parts of the Peloponessos and certain Aegean islands. This trade began in the thirteenth century, disappearing gradually by the end of the nineteenth, but not without leaving an indelible influence on northern European tastes in sweet and fortified wines.
The development of this new segment of the Greek wine industry continues. Major new ventures, like the pedigreed Gaia and Voyatsis estates have, in a short time, made a substantial mark. Energetic young producers like Nikólaos Douloufakis, Yiannis Economou and Haridimos Hatzidakis have thrown their hats into the ring, sure to mature over time and to make their presences felt.
At the same time that much attention in Greece during its recent wine revolution was centered on foreign cultivars, few producers, large or small, ever aimed to abandon what remained of the traditional Greek vineyard. While it is true that many successful new ventures of the 1980s and 1990s relied on a certain prestige associated with the use of common Western varieties (whether due to savvy business sense or a lack of confidence in native varieties to attract serious consideration abroad), doubts concerning the future potential of Greece's indigenous grapes were not played out in the country's vineyards. For one thing, the abandonment of well-established markets for traditional products of any quality was–and still is–uncalled for. For another, faith in the country's wine traditions and resources was sufficiently strong to guarantee not only their survival, but their primacy in the identity of a new wine industry. George Skouras, a major figure during the past two decades, maintains that foreign varieties were a passport, a standard against which the abilities of Greece's producers could be measured. Only with these, he believes, would the outside world have a basis for accepting the abilities of Greece's winemakers, and by extension, a basis for judging and appreciating the vinifications of indigenous cultivars.
Viticulture area: approx. 50,500 hectares
Wine production: approx. hectoliters
Crete, accounting for 20% of Greek wine production, is a sleeping giant. While the wine industry elsewhere in Greece has undergone a high profile resurrection, Crete, to the untrained eye, would appear to have missed the boat. Even wine professionals in Greece are quick to assert that Crete lacks quality cultivars. It is true that the wider revolution in the industry never reached Crete in quite the same way as it did on the mainland.
This is partly due to the dominance of cooperatives, on whom a great number of growers are dependent. With important exceptions, cooperatives in Greece have been slow to risk an approach that involves lowering yields. Understandably, the idea of decreasing production is anathema to cooperative members trying to feed families, especially in the absence of the kind of marketing expertise essential to opening premium markets. Hence the true potential of local cultivars are rarely realized by cooperatives. Ultimately, only unequivocal demand can alter yield philosophies. In Crete, this has not quite happened.
Another factor is the existence of some large companies that cast sufficiently long shadows that would-be upstarts have been fearful of competing against them.
Phylloxera took a bite out of Cretan vineyards beginning gradually in 1974. it is still a problem today. Although the sporadic spread of the disease gave the industry time to insure the survival and propogation of cultivars on new rootstock, one of the worst long-term effects of Phylloxera was the loss of old vines necessary for the production of serious wine from the Kotsifali variety. When the paradigm began to shift everywhere else in Greece, Arhanes and Peza, two major appellation zones, were out of fuel.
That is the bad news. The good news is that, by all indications, Crete's entrance into the premium market will be well worth waiting for. Fortunately, the very dependence of growers on the Arhanes and Peza appellation names resulted in the prompt replanting of the appellation-stipulated varieties (Kotsifali and Mandilaria). A more "advanced" local industry might (as has been the case in other regions at various times) have opted to introduce new varieties for vins de pays production with an eye on capitalizing on the trend towards Western cultivars. That they did not do so excessively speaks partly to the prescience of the creators of the appellations, who clearly understood their value, perhaps remembering a time when aged Arhanes (likely during the era when low-yield cultivation was a naturally foregone conclusion) compared favorably with French and Spanish wines.
Valley south of Arhanes
While Crete has been slow to rise to the challenge of world-class production of bottled wine, there have been exceptions. The island has been fortunate to be home to a number of privately-owned wineries in various stages of adaptation to world markets. The indisputable leader in quality at present is the Lyrarakis winery in Alagni. Little known outside of Crete, Lyrarakis was the only Cretan concern in step with the quality revolution in Greece during the 1980s and 1990s. Although the departure from a supplier model to quality estate was slow, painful and risky for the Lyrarakis brothers, the late 1990s found them producing a line of world-class wines from local varieties–some of them rare and exclusive to their estate–that transcend ethnic categorization. The addition of some Western varieties in the Lyrarakis vineyards has been a model of good taste and thoughtful restraint. Sotiris Lyrarakis is inarguably among the cream of the crop of Greek winemakers.
A large local firm with winemaking roots going back 70 years, the Miliarakis Brothers, under the Minos moniker, have begun steady upwards momentum working steadfastly exclusively with indigenous cultivars They have long-standing export markets as well as high visibility in the tourist market on Crete.
The Boutaris, icons of the Greek wine industry and the largest producer in the country, established roots in Crete in 1990 with the establishment of their Fantaxometocho Estate in Kato Arhanes. Under the direction of winery manager Yiannis Konstantakis the estate has begun the complicated task of finding the best combination of climate, traditional varieties and modern vinification that will yield superior wines. Local grapes are cultivated side-by-side with some Western varieties the Boutaris hope will fulfill the promise of international-quality Cretan wines.
The 26 year-old Creta-Oympias winery, primarily a bulk wine producer, was acquired in 1997 by the Casfikis Group with the aim of upgrading to premium-level production. Improved vineyard practices and renovations of the plant to state-of-the-art standards have already brought the company prestige in urban markets.
While the Arhanes Cooperative continues its slow, steady recovery from Phylloxera, the Peza Cooperative has accelerated its product development and marketing, including the addition of an impressive visitor center.
In the east of Crete the Sitia region is home to a variety called Liatiko, an early-ripening grape of complex character that is undergoing more scrutiny by conscientious vintners. These include the forward-thinking Sitia Cooperative, a producer of ever more daring and sophisticated wines from indigenous grapes, and one of two bright young stars on the Cretan horizon, Yannis Economou. Economou, in particular, seems poised to put Liatiko on the international map.
That change in Crete is truly underway is evidenced by the emergence of new blood. In addition to Economou, there is Nikolaos Douloufakis, a young enologist whose winemaking roots in Dafnes, just south of Iraklio, extend back generations. He is in the midst of renovating his family's traditional winery and vineyard. The results of his early efforts have been so promising that he is already the object of quiet scrutiny elsewhere in Greece.
Young winemakers, boutique wines and improving standards are all signs of a wine industry on the move. Adding color to this mix is the emergence of a small but determined negociant firm in Iraklio called Digenakis. A seeming anomaly in the current estate-centric phase of the industry, their existence and marketing acumen add to the impression of a full-bodied revival of Crete's ancient winemaking fortunes.